Guest post by Gordon Lewis
Do you want to see your photographs shown and celebrated in art galleries, modern art museums, monographs, collections, and all them other high-class places? Well my friend, that won’t be easy. The fine art photography scene is a hard nut to crack, and worth the effort only if you are really into nuts. (That was just a metaphor. Don’t read too much into it.) But if recognition in the art photography world is truly your goal, here are a few tips from an outsider’s point-of-view on how to do it.
Have an exotic-sounding name.
You’ll never get anywhere with a name like Bob Brown, Karen Carlson, or Mike Johnston. Bijan Ravishanker is more like it. Better yet, strive for being recognized solely by either your first or last name, not both. If everyone knows you by a single name, even if it’s Rufus, you have truly arrived.
If you aren’t shocking, annoying, prurient, blasphemous, or at the very least, irritating, then it’s clear you’re not putting real effort into your work. If you are so reckless as to allow your photographs to popular among the masses, how do you expect anyone in the art world to take you seriously? (And frankly, why would you need their support anyway?)
Embrace conceptual, not representational, art.
Anyone can take a photograph of a street scene, a landscape, or a cat. It takes a real artist to create a photograph of a cheap motel room that features an unmade bed, cracked mirror, sheets stained with urine, and a half-eaten watermelon resting on the pillow. (You will search the web in vain for such a photograph, by the way. I made it up. See how clever and conceptual I am?)
Your images have to be measured in feet, not inches; meters, not centimeters. Unless it takes at least two people to carry one of your framed prints and mount it on a wall, it’s obvious you never had any intention of seeing it displayed in a museum or a multi-million dollar mansion. The odds are that you may only sell three or four of these prints in your entire lifetime, but if the price makes it appear that the comma is at least two digits too far to the right, you’ll still do fine.
If you have the foresight to begin your career as a fine art photographer in poverty, then the extra-large strategy will present obvious challenges and contradictions. So, print extra-small instead. That way you can comfortably and confidently pitch a narrative about how your small prints are so much more intimate, remove the distance between your work and the viewer, reflect a “less is more” sensibility, etc. Your prints can still be exorbitantly priced though. You are still a serious artist, after all.
Go to art school.
This won’t necessarily make you a better fine art photographer. What it will do is expose you to the movers and shakers in the art world, teach you the rules of the game, and provide much-needed bona fides. Let’s face it: No matter how good a photographer you are, having been a member of the Colorado School of Mines photography club does not have quite the same cachet as being a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago.
It is so much easier for art critics to build a mythos around you and your work if you’re not around to contradict it. It’s also a lot easier for dealers to hype the value of your existing body of work if you are not around to produce more.
Can I guarantee you that embracing these tips will rocket you to fame and fortune? Of course not. It’s no accident I omitted other important factors such as talent and determination. But let’s face it, if fame and fortune were really what you wanted you’d be better off pursuing a career in reality TV or becoming a lottery winner. Your odds of success, in my humble opinion, would be about the same.
*I don’t mean to imply that "fine art" is somehow better than "regular art"—though many people mean exactly that. I am only using the term as a way to distinguish fine art from applied arts, such as pottery, or decorative arts, such as tapestries.
Old friend Gordon Lewis, originally a colleague of Mike's from Camera & Darkroom magazine and later the writer of the blog Shutterfinger, is the author of Street Photography: The Art of Capturing the Candid Moment, published by Rocky Nook. He lives in Philadelphia. In a former life, he wrote television sitcoms in Hollywood.
©2018 by Gordon Lewis, all rights reserved
Original contents copyright 2018 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Grant: "I'm confused. I thought this was supposed to be satire."
James Hildreth: "Shutterfinger, please come back to life."
Mike adds: Shhh! He might hear you.
John Camp: "If anyone would be interested in a serious and comprehensive treatment of Gordon's satire, I would recommend Art: A New History by Paul Johnson. First published about fifteen years ago, it's still available on Amazon. Johnson reviews the whole history of art going back to the paleolithic (it's a lavishly illustrated, large-format book more than 700 pages long) but when he gets to the 20th Century, he details what he calls 'fashion art' in which novelty and public relations skills become more important that the art object itself. The book is controversial, especially with the people he excoriates: gallery owners, museum curators more interested in ideologies than in art, and artists more interested in money than in art itself. Among them: Picasso, who he portrays as the godfather of fashion art."
Geoff Wittig: "There's a sharp dichotomy in the painting world. On one side we have contemporary art, which tends to be just like Gordon Lewis describes: self-consciously hip and snarky, pretty much adhering to what prominent (i.e. catering to wealthy collectors) art dealers deem is 'real art.' The witty concept is the point; craft is basically irrelevant. On the other side is 'representational art,' what most folks would recognize as paintings that depict something real: landscapes, portraits and so on, with an emphasis on technical skill as well as vision.
"Representational art is generally dismissed by the wealthy hipsters as 'kitsch.' But folks who can see that the emperor has no clothes tend to like it."
vince garofalo: "I have been very successful with my series of potential photographs for many years. I'm getting a camera soon...."
Mike replies: My art-school mentor, Steve Szabo, once threatened to have a show consisting of photographs hung to face the wall. All viewers would see would be the backs of the frames. Steve would be seated in a chair in the middle of the gallery and he would describe in words what each photograph looked like, to anyone who asked.